Interview with Indie Horror Filmmaker Dan Donley

Indie filmmaker Dan Donley.

Hey everyone.  I hope you’re all having a great holiday season.  I’m especially excited today (Friday, Dec 17th 2010) because after work today I’m off for 2 weeks.  Can’t tell you the last time I had this much time off!!  I’m also excited because I have another great interview with another indie horror filmmaker.  This time it’s DAN DONLEY, director of the extremely dark, twisted, and disturbing SHELLTER (see my review here).  Yup, I loved every second of it.  Dan, as you’ll find out, is an extremely intelligent man with a really interesting background.  Enjoy the interview!!


ANYTHINGHORRORHi Dan.  Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for  Tell us a little about yourself.  I’ve read you have a degree in psychology.  Is that true?  What spurned you on to make the move to making horror films?

DAN DONLEY:I got my BA in Psychology and was working on my Masters when a job opened up as a teaching assistant in the television department of the local junior college.  As they say, the rest is history.

I completed my MA, taught TV/Film at the school for a while and left to freelance as a camera operator/electrician in Hollywood.

Since then I’ve become a DP and worked on a wide variety of productions including commercials, industrials, and day playing as an operator on shows like ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and 24.  Most of the episodic TV I’ve done has been 2nd unit.

I DP’ed a couple of low budget horror films which made me want to do my own horror film.

What are some of your favorite horror films, past and present?  Which horror films and filmmakers really influenced you in your directing?

Donley and the cast/crew of SHELLTER.

My favorite horror films are also some of my favorite films including SE7EN, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and COPYCAT.  I like the psychological/thriller aspect but also want the pay-off, to see the gore instead of cutting away.

And CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3, which I worked on.  “The Saw Is Family!”


Which horror films and filmmakers really influenced you in your directing?

My directing style comes not from just watching films but from watching others direct and directing myself.  Being on set teaches you to solve the small problems or challenges that come with production.

If you want to learn how to direct, edit what you shoot.  That will show yourself all your short-comings as a director.

Also, I am very aware of budget.  The biggest enemy of production is time because that’s what you buying with your budget.  So, I tend to shoot very fast, two or three takes and move on.

What myself and my readers really wanna know:  Where the hell did you come up with the story and script for SHELLTER?  This is a fantastic film that is full of very dark and disturbing ideas and images.  Did this come from a really dark place inside of you?  I also read that part of the idea for SHELLTER came from a real-life experiment that was conducted in fear.  Is this true?  If so, tell us how this real life experiment evolved into SHELLTER.

Donley seeing how far he can push the envelop.

I have to start with SHADOWS (available on IndieFlix), which was my first feature.  The plot is almost cliché:  A group of parapsychology students go to a house haunted by a ghost with a big knife and the usual hi-jinks ensue.

SHADOWS has the typical amount of T&A, scares and blood for a horror film but I tried to make it for all viewers by adding in relationship stuff and humor.  It’s not laugh out loud funny but people are always surprised about the comedy.

Even though the plot is typical it’s entertaining and has a nice twist at the end.  I submitted SHADOWS to four horror and one mainstream film festival, and it was selected by the mainstream fest, premiering at the Grauman’s Chinese Six in Hollywood.

I got a sales agent for SHADOWS and quit entering festivals but what I learned was blood does not a horror film make.  I promised myself the next film would be all horror all the time.

I learned about the Milgram Experiment while an undergrad. The key scene of SHELLTER is the “shocking” scene that is loosely based on the Milgram experiment conducted at Yale in the 1960’s.  In this study, Stanley Milgram tried to determine how the Nazis were able to get ordinary people to do horrific things during the holocaust.

Test subjects volunteered for a psychology experiment about memory, were paired up and then randomly chosen to be either the Teacher or the Learner.

In actuality, the choice was rigged and the Learner was one of the experimenters, who was then wired to a box that supposedly delivered electric shocks.

Cari Sanders (Zoey) looking like she’s enjoying herself a little too much!!

The Teacher, the real test subject, was instructed to increasingly shock the Learner for every wrong answer.  The shocking machine was labeled from 1 to 10, mild to lethal.

It was postulated that maybe 1% of the population was sadistic enough to torture and kill another person but the results surprised everyone.  Not only did most of these ordinary people shock the Learner to levels of screaming pain but a full two-thirds of the test subjects shocked the Learner all the way to the lethal end.

While many people were ‘shocked’ with the results of the experiment, it helped explain the behavior of both the German prison guards and the Sondercommandos, the Jewish workers in the concentration camps.

It’s too easy to condemn their actions and say you would never do such terrible things.  It’s very different to actually be in that situation and have to choose between your morals or death.

With the Milgram experiment as the central theme, I wanted to tell a story about a person starting innocent who wouldn’t hurt a fly who slowly became a killer.  They may be killing to save themselves, but they are still committing terrible acts that are against their own morals.

This is the core of the story.  Many people say the story is very dark and that they would never do what Zoey did.  But that’s the point of the story:  We all have that dark place and most of us would do anything to survive.  We would push the button.

Spoiler Alert! Most people like the circular part of the story when Zoey becomes the nurse, but most people don’t realize what Zoey is wearing at the end; grey pants and blue top…  just like the doctor.

Tell us a little about the experiences of making SHELLTER.  What were some of the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?  Despite the hurdles, in the end you made a great film that has gotten a lot of rewards at various festivals.  Tell us about some of them.

Donley w/ his Best Feature trophy from the Phoenix Fear Film Festival.

I think if you’re lucky your film might make it into 10% of the film festivals you enter.  I went to one festival workshop that said you would be lucky to get into 1 in fifty.

We entered SHELLTER into 30 film festivals, 15 mainstream and 15 horror festivals.  We got into only 1 mainstream festival but got into eight horror festivals.  That’s over 50% so that really tells you who is SHELLTER’s audience.

Once we made it into those festivals, SHELLTER was invited to submit to several other film festivals.  Again, SHELLTER was just too hard-core for the mainstream festivals (they were really looking for horror/comedy) but got more than half.

SHELLTER has been in 13 festivals, been nominated for Best Feature in six and won two.  Plus, SHELLTER has been nominated multiple times in the major categories and have won a few of those, too.

Even thought SHELLTER doesn’t look like a low-budget film I’m assuming that it did indeed have a modest budget.  How did you manage to make SHELLTER look so sleek and “big budget.”

The budget for SHELLTER was the same as what BATMAN spent on ice.  Like every production, you try to get every dime up on the screen.

Most of the budget went to the stage, which had the standing sets and dressing.  We literally prepped for only a single day, including set building, propping and lighting. We started the next day, shooting for only seven days.  I wish it had been eight!

I think our next biggest expense were props and food.  Remember, all a crew really wants to know is what’s for lunch and when’s wrap!

What did you use to film SHELLTER?

Shot in 7 days, I’m sure the cast & crew were dead tired!!

I own cameras as a DP/operator and I used my Sony F-900 to shoot SHELLTER.  It’s a camera I use all the time, really comfortable with and I know exactly what it will do.  That means shooting fast.

The cast is also amazingly talented and all did a fantastic job.  How did you end up casting such a talented cast?

The SHELLTER cast was amazing.  Some of them I had already worked with like Vinnie, Alex, and Adam.  Alex brought me Michelle.  I knew I wanted to use these great people.

I’m lucky enough to live near LA where so many talented, and under-utilized, actors live.  I placed a few ads in the usual places, got a few hundred replies and spent five days seeing everyone who wanted to be seen.

During the callbacks we brought groups together to see who worked will with whom.  It’s also at this time the actors got a chance to read the script to see if they wanted to be part of something so hardcore.  Finally, we looked at schedules and cast the parts.

The one thing I really loved in SHELLTER are the special f/x.  Not only are they extremely well done but they are integral to the story and the progression of the plot.  The way the f/x are handled really elevates SHELLTER above the typical torture-porn flick.  Who did the f/x on your film?  What other projects has he worked on?  Tell us about your approach to the f/x in the film.  Did working with special f/x create more problems in making SHELLTER?

I can’t say FX created problems for SHELLTER because without them there is no SHELLTER.

When I wrote SHELLTER there were ways to die I wanted to do but I knew were expensive, time consuming and/or had to be done in post.  Most FX in the film I had seen done working on other films or learned about from other filmmakers so I knew exactly how to do them fast and cheap.

Although some of the actors had horror experience none of the crew were experienced in horror.  Even they weren’t sure they could pull it off.  But they were experienced crew and I knew they could easily do what was required.

BTW, no FX was done in post, everything you see is organic and was on set.

The effects break down into 3 different categories: Built gag, prop, and make-up.  Many times these three overlap to really make the effect work.

You don’t wanna know what scene Donley is prepping for!!

Spoiler Alert! The amputated foot is a great example. BJ Winslow of Dapper Cadaver made the custom leg to my specifications.  Art Director Richard Sedota had to build the table to make the table to hide the real leg and cook and stuff the meat in the fake leg.  MUA’s Leah Amaro and Ashlee Collins had to match the prosthetic to the real leg.  Finally, blood is added and there’s the effect!

Like all filmmaking, SFX is a team sport.

Here’s a question I ask all the people I interview:  If a big studio approached you and said, “Dan, we want you to make a horror remake of your choice and time and money are not an issue.”  What would that film be?  Why?

What a great question!  My first thought is being able to make an American version of TOKYO GORE POLICE.  That would be too much fun!

Of course, I’d like a chance to do a sequel/prequel to SEVEN.  But if you’re talking about one of the horror franchises I think I could do a really good job with the next CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Where can my readers get SHELLTER?  I noticed that on Netflix there are six films called “SHELTER” (with one “L”).  When can we expect SHELLTER to hit Netflix.  Will you be appearing at any upcoming horror conventions and screening SHELLTER?

The most important question!  You can get SHELLTER at and, but it’s cheaper at IndieFlix.

At the time I’m writing this, we’re on a wait and see with other platforms like Netflix.  With the help of people like you we hope to get the word of mouth going for SHELLTER.

So what’s next for you Dan?  I certainly hope you have plans for a new horror film!!  Can you give us any sneak peaks into your future project(s)?

Donley hamming it up on the set of SHELLTER.

The project I thought I was going to do right after SHELLTER was a vampire project but now everything is vampire related and, perhaps more importantly, we have to figure out what the new distribution model is for independent films.

I have a couple of other projects that I’d really like to do, too.

I truly believe that the future of the horror genre rests squarely in the hands of indie horror makers like yourself and Fred Vogel.  Keep doing what you’re doing and never compromise my friend!!

Thanks Scott.


Thanks again Dan.  And if no one can tell, I really loved SHELLTER!!  Please go check this one out … it’s worth seeking out.  For more info check out Donley’s website at  Dan’s a great guy and he has a helluva career in front of him.

Stay Bloody!!!

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